Will we be a post-history generation?

Something that (I think) Brian Eno said quite a few years ago, about the impermanence of digital audio (that much new music was being recorded, mixed, mastered, and delivered on digital media which has a relatively short life – a master tape with a few bits corrupted here and there becomes unreadable. Compared to analogue tape which may pick up dropouts, but the tape can still be listened to many years after its recording*), was echoed in a program last night touching on photography (BBC4’s ‘Thoroughly modern: The snapshot camera’).

A remark was made that previous generations of photographers made real physical artefacts when taking pictures – the negative film strip – versus the digital images which ‘we’ are so fond of.

We can still view the images that were taken a hundred or more years ago: take a bit of chemistry (photo-sensitive paper, developer etc.), add some light, and there you have it – a reproduction of a picture which would have been seen in Edwardian times.

Compare that with the current reliance on digital image capture, where ‘images’ exist merely as a pattern of bits on a disk – there’s an awful lot of technology required to view the image – and when it’s gone with your next hard disk crash (backup? what backup?), all you have left is the printout from your inkjet printer, with it’s non-permanent inks which will gradually fade away…

Of course, digital isn’t all bad – those files can be duplicated ad infinitum, uploaded to web-based services, burnt to CDs, DVDs etc. (but even then, CDs and DVDs will eventually become unreadable due to degradation of the media itself – cf. Brian Eno’s remark about the potential loss of digital audio masters).

Digital images are also, in the general case, stored in a lossy form – features which we cannot see on a 6×4 print, suddenly become solid blocks of colour (‘compression artifacts’) when viewed at 12×16…

The only hope for digital creations is to duplicate, duplicate, duplicate… A new storage standard? Use it! Backup all of you data from those Zip disks onto CD… CDs onto DVDs… DVDs onto HD-DVD (or should I use Blu-ray?)… from HD-DVD to ???

Is this any worse than ‘analogue’ media? Negative strips etc.? I don’t know – Negatives are in themselves precious artefacts, and may of course be lost or destroyed as well… but when they survive, the data is still intact (even if only a fragment of an image survives, it can still be printed; if an analogue tape is noisy or has dropouts, or if a vinyl record has clicks and pops, it can still be listened to…).

Still, both have uses, both have their own strengths (and weaknesses). Me? I’m currently using film a lot…


* of course analogue tape is not immune to problems either – in the 1970s Ampex changed the formulation of the most popular master tape in the world – with the result that tapes became unplayable… but recoverable nonetheless – See this AIR article
Another approach to the problem of degraded tapes was to use contemporary vinyl records as the master source…